(Video on Demand, February 2014) Hollywood is growing old alongside a significant proportion of its audience, so it’s not surprising to find more and more movies aimed at older audiences. Suffice to say that Last Vegas is at least better than The Expendables series is confronting how yesterday’s superstars can go gently into semi-retirement. Focusing on four older men coming to spend a wild weekend in Vegas to celebrate one of their own’s nuptials to a (much) younger woman, Last Vegas soon turns to debauchery of a gentle kind, winking in The Hangover‘s direction without quite committing to such outrageousness. It’s sort-of-hypocritical to see stars like Michael Douglas and Robert de Niro (both of whom married significantly younger women) espouse the rightness of marrying age-appropriately, but when the object of their affection is the astonishingly good-looking Mary Steenburgen (still seven years their junior, one notes), it’s hard to complain that much. It helps that the film has a middle-of-the-road comic sensibility, amusing without being outrageous, and carefully pacing its development to gently lull viewers to a surprise-free climax. Kevin Kline and Morgan Freeman provide able supporting performances in filling an aging brat-pack. De Niro sort-of reprises his tough-guy persona (De Niro scholars are already talking about the self-referential second half of his career), Douglas oozes a slightly-oily charm, Kline does fine comic work, while Freeman is fun just being Freeman. Director Jon Turteltaub faithfully directs a decently-structured but timid script, and Vegas’s attractions do the rest. Last Vegas doesn’t amount to much, and that’s probably the point: this is mass-market comedy aiming older, and there’s no need to be bold or outrageous when nostalgia and gentle chuckles will keep the target audience happy. So it goes that the film is light entertainment, almost instantly forgettable but decently pleasant while it plays.
(In theaters, July 2010) There’s a lot of generic familiarity in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but don’t despair yet: Under Jon Turteltaub’s sure-footed direction, genre-aware script and quirky performances, this fantasy film actually manages to save itself from embarrassment. Nicolas Cage fans won’t be disappointed by his portrayal of an eccentric sorcerer, while Jay Baruchel more than holds his own as a sympathetic science nerd turned magician. (Plus: Monica Bellucci, even in a too-brief role.) There is a lot of special-effects eye candy, and as many different magic tricks as the first four Harry Potter movies combined. New York locations are effectively exploited, whereas the editing finds a good pace. But never mind the technical credentials: The real charm of the film is to be found in the script, which correctly assumes that we’ve seen a lot of movies of this type: as a result, a significant portion of the required exposition is sarcastically telescoped. (The best instance of this happens during the obligatory but well-handled car chase, as Cage’s character quickly deals with his apprentice’s questions without even waiting for him to ask them.) The one sequence that really doesn’t fit tonally with the rest of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a too-goofy clean-up scene that pays homage to the Fantasia animated segment of the same title without bothering to rein in the CGI excesses. Both Baruchel and Cage are oddball enough that they can do justice to their respective characters and if their delivery could occasionally be improved, the net effect is a film-long smile. Baruchel, in particular, has an irresistible puppy-dog charm –especially when he comes to enjoy his magical talents. Frankly, it’s hard to resist a protagonist who charges into the final battle shouting something like “I came armed with SCIENCE!” For a film that could have been considerably dourer, there’s a refreshing competence at play in this latest Bruckheimer vehicle that is enough to make us forget about the familiarity of it all.